Comms lessons from the recent Stellantis layoffs

It’s not just what you say that matters — how that message is delivered matters, too.

It’s an unfortunate reality that layoffs are a common part of our current economic landscape. But how those job cuts are communicated makes a world of difference—not only in how the affected employees talk about an organization, but how remaining employees feel about it as well.

A recent incident at Stellantis, an automaker and parent company of Dodge, Jeep and Chrysler offers a timely case study of how not to communicate about a layoff.

Late last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that the company was set to conduct a round of layoffs on Friday. That’s not notable in itself. But it’s how Stellantis chose to go about the layoffs that raises eyebrows.

According to a memo from Stellantis obtained The Car Dealership Guy on X, the company implemented a “mandatory remote work day”. During that remote day, the company notified hundreds of people they were out of work.

An anonymous Stellantis engineer who spoke to Fox 2 Detroit said that the remote work day was little more than an excuse for Stellantis to carry out a mass firing via video call. The former Stellantis worker also speculated the cuts were an excuse by the organization to outsource jobs to lower-cost countries.

Despite the poor optics, Stellantis’ chief software officer Yves Bonnefont told employees that careful consideration went into the job cuts.

“I understand that news of staff reduction can be unsettling, and I want to assure you that these decisions were not made lightly,” he said according to a staff email reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Creating clarity and trust

As is the case with many things in the business world, there’s a right and a wrong way to communicate about certain issues. Layoffs are no exception. In fact, communicators should pay especially close attention to how their words and actions come across during a layoff, as picking the wrong ones can put a stain on the organization’s name among the public and both current and former employees which can be tough to remove.

In December 2023, we wrote a piece outlining the right and wrong way to conduct a layoff. In that piece, we showcased the example of Spotify’s recent layoffs and how the company handled them. The music streamer’s chief executive, Daniel Ek, released a thoughtful statement that outlined the reasons for the layoffs, the provisions set aside for those affected, the path forward for the employees that remained, and a note of thanks for those departing. It hit all the right notes and recognized the humanity of everyone involved.

Manager mindfulness

Though we’ll likely never know what was discussed behind closed doors, the way Stellantis handled its layoff appears neither transparent or considerate for the people involved or left behind after the fact. Because the news was delivered en masse, it’s also unclear what role, if any, people managers played in this strategy.

Two of the biggest things any organization needs to lean into during a layoff are clarity of communication and trust. But calling a meeting with short notice, telling everyone to work from home without explanation, and then showing a few hundred people the door at once? That’s a less-than-ideal way to foster trust with your employees, and that sort of action is a great way to risk your reputation as an employer.

It sounds simple because it is — treat your people like people. In times of change, empathy should be your north star. Prepping managers to have difficult conversations, and communicate with careful attention to the impacts that a layoff will have on their team, will make a bigger statement from the executive team feel more personable and navigable for all people involved. After all, there’s no company to communicate about without the people that work for it.

 Navigating comms complexities protects your employer brand

Whether an organization handles a layoff the right or wrong way can contribute significantly to that company’s employer brand. In a piece last month, PR Daily editor-in-chief Allison Carter wrote that the optics and handling of a layoff impact far more than just the people who are out of a job. It can also make employees left behind wary of the company’s future and motives, and prospective employees less likely to consider it.

Carter writes:

Addressing the impacts of layoffs head-on can help preserve your existing talent. Reacting with empathy and compassion can help new talent see themselves working at the organization, even if they’ve just had to say goodbye to some workers.

One method of doing this is through the all-important layoff memo or email. Increasingly, these documents are being published externally immediately after being shared with employees so all stakeholders can see the same information. This can simultaneously serve as a way to reassure your remaining top performers and show prospective workers why you’re worth taking a chance on.

Communicators need to consider the longer-term impacts of a layoff, even if that might be difficult to see amid the upheaval of such a major change.

Of course, much of this is easier said than done. Cheryl Fenelle Dixon, principal at Perfectly Clear Communications emphasized the complexities to layoff comms that are not often seen by outsiders.

“If you’ve ever been hands-on involved in organizing a reduction in force or layoffs, you know that it is extremely complex,” Fenelle Dixon said. “You’re working against a tight timeline, coordinating notifications to affected employees, their managers and others within business units all while trying to prevent information from leaking, unclear messaging and employees hearing about it from a third party.”

The Stellantis situation raises the question of how that “mandatory remote work day” could have been handled differently. Layoffs aren’t likely to subside given the economic climate, but no matter the situation, layoffs should be communicated clearly, honestly, and with a level of empathy that reminds your workforce they are a community when they need to hear it most.

Sean Devlin is an editor at Ragan Communications. In his spare time he enjoys Philly sports and hosting trivia.

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